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The money is in the T20 game. That’s the reality

[ESPNcricinfo] 

As the global players’ representative body, the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations (FICA) continues to closely track trends in the game that are having an impact on the traditional cricket structure and are changing the employment landscape across the world of the professional game.

In doing this, FICA surveys player views, looks closely at their choices and at the shifting labour market. The outcome of the recent dispute in Australia will play a part in this and is significant for reasons that go beyond simply a matter of which party prevailed in a pay-related issue. The hashtag used by players and the Australian Cricketers’ Association (ACA) during the dispute with Cricket Australia was #fairshare, which supported the ACA position that players should share in the revenues that they play a central role in helping to generate.

In the players’ movement around the world in cricket, we consider revenue share to be international best practice: if the game does well financially in a country then the players should do well too. This gives players a sense of stakeholding in the game. Australia has always led the way in this approach in cricket, and the players and ACA succeeded in ensuring that the internationally respected principle is retained. South Africa and New Zealand are other FICA countries with established revenue-share models, and this has also been introduced in the West Indies. In England there are ongoing discussions around this, as is the case in Scotland, and will soon be the case in Ireland.

Player stakeholding and revenue share in cricket go beyond just fairness. The principle is actually a vitally important one for the game in several countries for the reasons outlined below.

From top to bottom
Go back a few years and professional cricket was a top-down sport. The vast majority of the game’s revenues were generated by international cricket, and state/provincial/county competitions were largely seen as producers of players for the international side. In football it is the opposite: players play primarily for clubs, the vast majority of the revenue generated is in the inter-club leagues, and players are released to play for their countries only from time to time – a bottom-up type model.

However, the rise of T20 cricket and T20 leagues around the world is pushing our game rapidly in a football direction. In 2017 we have a number of viable and aspirant T20 leagues that compete for the participation of players from all over the world. The road may be bumpy for some of the smaller leagues but there is a road, and although the South African league has stalled, it is likely that it will re-emerge in some shape or form. In 2020 we will also have a league in England. By then some of the established leagues may have expanded and claimed more time, not only in the already oversubscribed global playing schedule but also in the hearts and minds of the growing number of new cricket fans around the world.

Short form, big money
The leagues are growing the game, but they are also paying significantly more to players, on a time-wage basis, than the majority of countries can pay them to play international cricket. FICA’s review of the international cricket structure in 2016 revealed that a top-flight player playing for 32 on-field days across three T20 leagues could earn an average of US$510,000. No country, other than India, Australia and England, is able to match that for the majority of their international players, and for these three countries, matching it assumes that the player is selected across various formats.

“The leagues are growing the game, but they are also paying significantly more to players, on a time-wage basis, than the majority of countries can pay them to play international cricket”

Now add to all of this the fact that the IPL media-rights deal has more than tripled in value, the BBL media-rights deal is likely to significantly increase shortly, and the ECB has ramped up its media-rights deal by, among other things, packaging in its new T20 league across various platforms. It doesn’t take long to work out that a significant proportion of cricket’s global media resources are moving in the direction of the leagues and away from traditional bilateral international cricket. And the players, being economically minded professional athletes with the desire to play where the market values them, will follow. Younger players are also choosing to hone their skills more and more for the short form. The pendulum is swinging increasingly away from the traditional market, and the free-agency model, under which increasing numbers of players will choose to play exclusively in the leagues, is on its way.

There’s still a place for bilaterals
In FICA’s discussions with the ICC and country boards a few years ago, the “primacy of international cricket” was a phrase often used. From our side we no longer use the phrase as it is becoming less and less reflective of reality. However, if we truly value bilateral international cricket, as many players do, and recognise the important role that Test cricket plays in the heritage of the game, then we need to create a balance between international cricket and the leagues. This balance will be financially critical to countries that remain heavily reliant on international cricket revenues. If cricket continues to simply allow the pendulum to swing without meaningful action, we could soon reach a stage where a healthy balance may not be possible at all.

There are a number of things that cricket can do, globally and within each country, in seeking to achieve a balance. Some of these are both urgent and imperative:

First, create a global playing schedule with windows for leagues and international cricket to enable their co-existence. This is not an easy exercise but it is critically important if international cricket is to retain the best players.

Second, continually work on and improve contextualised inter-country Test and ODI competition structures to manage volume, provide sporting narrative, and ensure better-matched contests – less must be more. The ICC’s recent introduction of Test and ODI leagues is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t go far enough, especially in relation to Test cricket.

Third, with improved competition structures there should be a fit-for-purpose player regulatory system agreed to with the players.

Fourth, every board should be looking at some form of workable “stakeholder empowerment” of its players in order to keep them playing international cricket. Simple restriction on the movement of players in this shifting landscape by attempting to prevent them from playing in league markets, where they are currently more valued, is not an option for many reasons, including legal ones.

This empowerment concept can take different forms in different countries but there is little doubt that it is best achieved by ensuring that players genuinely have an interest in the overall success of the game in a country and a desire to represent the country, while also optimising earning potential. In some countries players are not treated as assets and that is a dangerous approach in these times.

Revenue share is an integral part of player stakeholding, and so too is having a genuine collective voice in those aspects of the game that have an impact on players and their careers. The corporate world has for many years used share-option-type arrangements to retain employees who are key to the business but are also of value to other employers in the market. Cricket can learn from this. Countries that view their players simply as employees with no vested interest, and not as key individuals to be valued and retained, do so at their peril. In 2017 the top players have alternatives and are in high demand.

Tony Irish is the executive chairman of the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations, FICA

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